Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Parashat Mikets and Chanukah: On Becoming a Vessel

Yosef the dreamer turns into Yosef the dream interpreter in the end of last week’s parsha (interpreting the dreams of the baker and the butler) and the beginning of this week’s parsha (interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams). This change signals an important transformation in Yosef; he has learned not to talk, but to listen, not to focus on himself, but to focus on others.

Through his experiences in the pit and in jail and as a slave, Yosef’s natural haughtiness and self-engrossment were challenged and he went through a process of what the Hasidic masters call hitbatlut, self-negation. This is not self-hatred, which is merely the flip side of self-love, and still entails a kind of egocentrism. No, this is the willing letting go of ego, the process of understanding one’s small place in the universe and the realization of other larger powers. Yosef began by speaking about himself – “I was in the center,” he says of his sheaf of wheat. But in the end, when Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, what Yosef says is: Beladay, “Not I!” Elokim ya’aneh et shlom Pharaoh, “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Not I. Yosef has emptied himself of ego.

In the process, Yosef turns himself into a kli, a vessel of God. He is able to interpret these dreams because he is able to channel God’s wisdom. Pharaoh sees this and says, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” By emptying himself, Yosef makes room for the spirit of God, becomes an open vessel ready to be filled by the divine spirit.

A full container cannot be filled. If one is filled with oneself, there is no room for God. When a destitute woman approaches the prophet Elisha in the book of Kings, he tells her to gather as many empty containers, kelim, as possible (II Kings 4). Only then can a miraculous oil be poured into them. The first step is creating space, turning oneself into a kli, an empty vessel.

The symbol of Chanukah is the menorah. What is the menorah other than a kli, a vessel to hold oil or candles, a vessel to contain the lights that we light. We are like the menorah, says the Sefat Emet, a kli for holding light, divine light. When humans were created, God breathed life into their nostrils. We are containers filled with life and light from above. It is our task to empty ourselves sufficiently to be able to receive this light.

In a famous disagreement about how to light the Chanukah lights, Bet Shammai, unlike Bet Hillel whom we follow, prescribed the lighting of 8 candles on the first night, followed by a decreasing number each night until a single candle was lit on the last night. The Sefat Emet suggests that Bet Shammai understood the need for hitbatlut, self-negation, as part of the spiritual process. There is a need to reduce, to empty oneself further and further. Bet Hillel, who has us gradually increase from one candle to 8, is focused on the filling side, the outpouring of light in greater and greater quantities into our menorahs and us. Shammai understood, on the other hand, that in order to receive such light, we must also practice a kind of self-reduction, gradually emptying ourselves, like Yosef did, of our natural self-engrossments, and turning ourselves into vessels, vessels that are able to hear the dreams of others, vessels that are open to receiving and transmitting the divine light in this world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Parashat Vayeshev: Hope at the Bottom of the Pit

How quickly and how far does the family of Yaakov descend in this parsha! Hatred festers unchecked among the brothers, and turns to violence against Yosef who is thrown down into a pit and sold “down” to Egypt as a slave. The Torah draws a parallel between this descent of Yosef’s (hurad) and that of Yehudah, who “goes down” (vayered) from his brothers in search of a wife and lands in his own trouble. Indeed, Yosef’s descent leads the whole family to descend; in the short term, it leaves his father in a permanent state of mourning and his brothers with an uneasy sense of guilt, and in the long term, it literally brings the rest of the family to descend to Egypt as well, and eventually, to be enslaved there for hundreds of years.

The midrash characterizes the family’s state of mind this way: “Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [presumably out of distress over his enslavement]; Reuven was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [either out of remorse for not managing to rescue Yosef or out of remorse for sleeping with his step-mother]; and Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [in mourning for Yosef].” What a bunch! All depressed and regretful and suffering.

But the midrash does not end there. It turns to God: “And the Holy One blessed be He was occupied with creating the light of the Messianic King.” The light of the Messianic King?! The midrash is referring to the messianic line of King David, which is traced back to Peretz, one of the twins born in this parsha to Tamar and Yehudah.

Amidst all this descent and sackcloth, the seed of the future Messiah is born! The Yehudah/Tamar story takes place right in the middle of the Yosef story. On one side of it, Yosef is thrown into the pit by his brothers, and on its other side, Yosef is thrown into another pit, the pit of jail, by Potiphar. If we imagine the parsha as one large pit, then the middle, the very bottom, is the story of Yehudah and Tamar. It is out of the very bottom of that pit of misery and descent that a tiny light of future hope emerges.

The Slonmier Rebbe, in his work, Netivot Shalom, speaks about this phenomemon as the kusta deheyuta, the “tiny speck of life” contained in a seed when it is about to sprout and blossom. A seed must first rot and almost completely disintegrate into the earth before it can sprout, says the Netivot Shalom. Out of almost complete absence comes this tiny spark of future life.

Chanukah’s lights, lit in the darkest part of the year, contain a similar message. Out of the blackest of nights will come light, out of the hardest of times will come life, the tiny inkling of change and hope for the future. Like Yaakov’s family, we all go through periods of intense darkness in our lives, periods where it seems that there is no bottom to the pit of despair, that the pain will simply go on forever. The seed of the Messiah, born in the pit of Yaakov’s family’s darkest moments, is a reminder not to give up hope, that it is in fact from within this darkness that seeds of future life are sprouted.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Parashat Vayishlach: What I Like About Yaakov

Avraham is someone I could never be. He is a great model of faith, but his example is difficult to emulate. He is never scared or doubtful. He never cries or cries out. He is stoic, disciplined and obedient. That’s why I’m glad we have Yaakov as an ancestor as well.

Yaakov is emotional. He cries when he meets Rachel. The commentaries try to explain why, but the Torah gives no reason, and perhaps there was no specific rational one. Isn’t that the way it is sometimes, all the emotion of days on end welling up and coming out unexpectedly? He cries again, later, inconsolably, when he thinks that Yosef has died.

He cries, and he also experiences great fear. First, after his ladder dream, he awakes and has a great fear. And second, in the beginning of this week’s parsha, when he hears that his brother – who wanted to kill Yaakov when they last met – is approaching him with 400 men, the Torah again tells us – Vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo -- Yaakov was greatly frightened and distressed. He has intense emotions. The Torah says vayetzer lo, literally, “It was narrow for him.” He is in straits, suffering deeply.

The commentaries wonder about this expression of fear. Why was he fearful when God had promised him protection? Didn’t he trust in God’s promise? They explain away his fear in various ways – he was worried maybe he’d sinned and so the promise didn’t apply anymore – but it seems to me that the Torah is telling us that our ancestor, Yaakov, at least occasionally, had doubts. He was not an Avraham, stalwart and unwavering in his faith. There were moments when he was not sure.

And out of this doubt, out of this confusion and deep distress and struggle and fear, out of all those very human emotions, arose a new kind of religious outlook. For Yaakov is the first of the patriarchs whose passionate prayer we hear. “O God of my father Abraham . . . O Lord, who said to me . . . deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother . . .” (32:10ff).

Avraham never asked God for anything, except to save others, in Sodom, and there he did it methodically, rationally, politely. Yitzhak entreated God over Rivkah’s barrenness, but there is no description of the emotion that went with it, nor do we hear the words. But Yaakov, Yaakov is bursting with emotion, so that when he prays, it is a shavat ani¸ “cry of the afflicted.” He opens his soul and pours it out to God.

That is Yaakov’s way, not a clear, calm one like Avraham’s, but a struggling, searching one full of turmoil and emotional upheaval. Yaakov receives a name change and a body change (the wrenching of his hip by the angel) in this parsha just as Avraham received a name change and a body change (circumcision) years earlier. But if Avraham’s mark was a symbol of covenant and obedience, Yaakov’s is a symbol of struggle and strife. Even with God, he is locked in struggle.

They each have their place. We can hope at times to experience a little bit of the peace of Avraham’s faith, but we shouldn’t stop ourselves from pursuing the Yaakov route as well, the turmoil, the brokenness, the doubt, the struggle, and the cry, because this, too, or perhaps, this, especially, is a route to the divine.